Monday, July 02, 2007

Book Review: Steve Waugh - Out Of My Comfort Zone

Steve Waugh never said "You just dropped the World Cup". He didn't say it to Gibbs nor to anybody else. It was a ridiculous legend propagated by the media, surprisingly believed by some extremely naive people. The first time I heard it, I thought that it was an improbable thing to say in that situation (There were a couple games left for the winner to be determined). Steve Waugh, one of the better people in terms of coming up/back with pithy sledges and quips, would have certainly 'sledged' Gibbs but wouldn't have said something that fantastic. As expected he denied saying so (Only to use it later to put the 'wood' on Gibbs). In his book he claims to have said something more believable - 'When we crossed paths mid-pitch, I couldn't resist a jibe in our ongoing verbal battle. "Hey, Herschelle," I said, "do you realize you've just cost your team the match" - this seems appropriate. This was supposedly the end of verbal exchanges that Waugh started when Gibbs was batting; 'We had questioned his temperament by asking "I wonder why Herschelle isn't in the test team"... we'd answer ourselves: "he mustn't be very good at concentrating" Or: " I can't believe he is not in the Test team - he must be a bit soft". While that piece of sledging backfired against the Aussies, Gibbs welcomed Waugh at 3/48 chasing 272 with "Now its your turn, lets see how you handle the pressure" - which obviously backfired again. Anyway with that out of my way, lets get to the book.

Some questions formed the basis of the curiosity that led me to buy and read the book. Australian cricket moved from rags to riches during Steve Waugh's time. Waugh, seen as a synonym for toughness, ruthlessness and the Aussie way, is generally talked about as the symbol of that transformation. But what has Steve really contributed to this rise? At a personal level - What does Waugh think about his famous 'zone'? What was his mental thought process in getting and staying there? Australia had positioned itself to be a world beater in Mark Taylor's time. But it truly became the #1 Test and #1 ODI side, by a big margin, during Waugh's period. Was it because of Waugh or because Windies and English cricket completely declined in Waugh's period. The most impressive aspect about this mammoth 720 page autobiography by Steve Waugh is that there is no trace of humility in it. Really. He praises and criticizes himself with abandon. If you are tired of all the self-effacing lies that an author puts up in the name of humility, then this is a good book. Sometimes the exact truth or the real thought process comes out when the author isn't trying to be humble. You really get to know what he really thought. Many times, and this happens through out the book, I understood the unrelenting self-promotion (as a result of the very high esteem he holds himself with) to be reflective of his character as a person. Yes! he goes to great extents to justify his actions and there are points where you begin to roll your eyes, when he justifies field placements, run calling etc. But then I felt, I was listening to his side of the story for the first time and it should be given a fair chance. For 720 pages (including an interesting mini-autobiography by Lynette Waugh) this was a fast book. I didn't feel the lengthiness of it. Never got bored. The only chapter I skipped was the chapter on Udayan because frankly I wasn't interested. This review will probably take a couple of posts to complete. Some of the many sub-plots in the Waugh career was a vehicle for me to find the answers for the questions I had while buying this book. Let me first take up the most burning sub-plot in the Waugh career; Ian Chappell Vs Steve Waugh.

While in the process of reading Waugh's book, I also read Ian's book - 'Chappell on Chappell' - and in that collection-of-articles kind of book Ian dedicates 1 full chapter to criticise and butcher Steve Waugh. The name of the chapter itself is 'Steve Waugh'. It is surprising that Indians reacted badly (as in Home-Support-Ian) to Ian Chappell's criticism of Ganguly in the 2001 series. Because Ian was also Waugh's biggest critic. If Ganguly ever wrote an autobiography, all he would need to do is cut and paste from Waugh's to describe his feud with Chappell. So I wanted to juxtapose that chapter in Ian's book and Waugh's response and indulge in a little bit of compare and contrast. Among many things, Ian is particularly harsh on two self-perceived aspects of Waugh's cricket; (a) That he was an extremely selfish cricketer (Damien Martin's run out, walking in to crease early and diluting Langer's exit applause, giving strike to Stuart Mcgill in the 98/99 ashes boxing day test) and (b) All of Waugh's innings were technically built the same way - "if you'd seen one you'd seen everything". I felt the first quality was actually a positive one. Reading the book I clearly felt that at many points Waugh's self-determination and hunger would clearly be construed as selfish by the common man. Nothing wrong with it except for the negative connotation associated with a surprisingly positive quality - selfishness. Selfishness is just like any other attribute and is negative only if it found in excess. Something, which every great player who played the game possessed in healthy quantities and one that had a causal relationship with their success. The second criticism is so moot that it is not worth elaborating on unless you are measuring style instead of effectiveness.

But Steve counters Ian, in his book, at several different points; I only sort of agreed with "I would later learn that Ian's style of commentary was to never deal in shades of grey but always be very clear in his intent. Often though I found that there was no constructive element to his criticism"; Later Waugh develops conspiracy theories when he says "He labelled me 'selfish' on Sydney radio, which to a cricketer is tantamount to being accused of treason. To me his words seemed like a well-planned move, just when the question of who would succeed Tubby as Test captained was being considered. Chappell was a big Shane Warne fan and Shane, just back from his shoulder surgery, was the only real alternative to me as the new leader." And then finally Waugh is frustrated and recursively does what he accuses Ian Chappell of doing "To say Chappell's criticism irked was an understatement, though I knew that, like anyone, he was entitled to an opinion. I don't mind the fact that he criticised me - in fact, I would rather some one make a judgement than not - but I have always felt that a critic must either be constructive or base his comments on fact. I couldn't help but think about the reasons he was so down on me. It might have been that I praised the work of Bob Simpson, who was his sworn enemy" - this although makes some sense given that Ian hates the concept of a 'coach' - it is not a constructive response from Waugh as it brings in a Vashishta-cursed-Yagnavalkya-because-Vishwamitra-likes-Yagnavalkya kind of Upanishadic twist to the story. Then Waugh adds - in a if-you-can't-fight-em-join-em kind of way - "or that I didn't spend hours in the bar drinking and regurgitating old cricket stories. Or perhaps he wasn't keen on the coincidence of me being, like him, the older brother and combative in nature. Or maybe he didn't like the fact that I refrained from playing the 'macho' hook shot." -- hardly constructive response. Finally Waugh sees sense "Whatever it was, his was a personal attack, which came from a guy I didn't know and who certainly didn't know me. It was something I had to live with, and when I realized he was never going to cut me much slack, I decided that anything he said was positive would be a bonus and the rest just cast aside." This sub-plot alone, I felt, could have laid the foundation for a potential 'this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship' between Waugh and Ganguly.
To sum up, I found Ian's comments analytical, reasonably constructive but harsh. The individual arguments by Ian makes sense as it usually does. However, I never got a feeling of what standard Ian was comparing Waugh with. Is Waugh being assessed in relation with someone else? If the captaincy/batting-performance comparison was with Waugh's peers like Ganguly, Cronje, Pollock, Lara, Sachin, Atherton, Hussain etc - then I felt Ian was not-constructive. In my mind Waugh was clearly superior to most people in that group and at the least equal in terms of batting performances with Sachin and Lara. If Ian was comparing Waugh with the 'greatest teams ever' and if the imaginary peer group included Ian himself then the criticism appears to be a constructive one (except for the Pak tour) but an obviously ambiguous comparison. On Waugh's part, he does have as many constructive responses to Ian's criticism as the number of baseless ones. Some the Waugh decisions that were severely criticised were made in the context of the game situation, which is not immediately obvious to the media and was conveniently misunderstood by Chappell. Waugh and Chappell clearly are birds of the same feather not flocking together.
To be Continued

6 comments:

Karthik Sriram said...

Ian atleast has some locus standi to criticise waugh, but!

When guys like Gavaskar criticise Ponting - thats called height of trash talk. Gavaskar, himself, the paragon of un-gentlemanly behaviour on the field, is criticising Ponting for sledging - beat this!

Anonymous said...

at the least equal in terms of batting performances with Sachin and Lara

That is a little bit unwarranted.. i dont think no one can match sachin or Lara.. Waugh was gritty... no question.. but to compare them to steve is sacrilege..

Waugh was a very ordinary cricketer who went to greater heights because of the value he put on his wicket and being a little bit selfish... if you see the 2002/2003 ashes series, you would know how he hung on to his dear place... and then in the subsequent season agaisnt india... he almost robbed him of a warm sendoff.... but for his 80 and parthiv patel and fcukonrr... australia would have lost..

He was one of the toughest guys ever to play cricket though.....

I said...

Chappell is perhaps right in his criticism of Steve's captaincy: all out attack when on top and too defensive when taking the stick. The Eden Gardens test comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

What happened to part II? I thought I saw it up there and now its gone.

Hawkeye said...

anon2,

it was always there. do you see it now or do you have a cache issue?

Anonymous said...

Steve gave the Australian public great satisfaction over his 168 tests through what he did for Australian cricket. His ability to get the best out of himself as a player and the best out of his team as a captain is what made him an all-time great. He had high expectations of the team and was able to achieve outstanding results. His record is astonishing and Australia was scoring runs at 4 + runs per over, winning many tests within 3 days, and Steve was getting the very best out of champion players. In the test against India at Eden Gardens in 2001, it is hard to imagine a different result under a different captain, but this is the one test that critics of Steve continue to point towards. But the aplomb with which the team won the other tests under his captaincy must surely outweigh that one very disappointing test match and series in India.

You get the impression that there is immense respect for Steve from the players he captained, but that he is not personally close to many. Steve has a very valid point in saying that perhaps it was because he was not part of the old-school boys club of cricket that Ian was, and because his playing style was different to Ian's, that Ian was a critic of his. Ian personally didn't like him or relate to him, from a distance as Steve points out. Steve did things his own way, was never too concerned with how the public viewed him as he was more focused on results. He was not a lads lad, he wasn't a boorish character, he was independent and never sought the friendship or counsel of previous players or captains whom he didn't already know personally. He also is unlikely to be a tv commentator because he is not that sort of character, and it again points to the likelihood that Steve is on the outside of the boys club.
It is a shame because the way Steve views the game is unique and it would be fascinating to hear him speak throughout a game as the action unfolds.

During Michael Clarke's 329, channel 9 were comparing the best test innings at the SCG in the last 20 years. Steve's ton in 2003 was 103, and Brian Lara and Clarke scored a mountain more runs in their  innings. But the public vote was Clarke first by a long way, Steve's century a clear second and Lara's 277 third. Predictably, Chappelli was talking about how ripped off Lara was to only be considered third. Bill Lawry was the only commentator to even mention Steve's century. It was a great innings for the context within which Steve scored it, and for the overwhelmingly public adulation the innings received. It is still one of the most memorable innings witnessed for Australian cricket followers and yet you get the impression that Chappelli and some of the other commentators including former teammates Ian Healy and Michael Slater are reluctant to give the innings any further credit.

Recently Chappell ranked the performance of the last four Australian captains in order, Taylor, Ponting, Border and then Steve Waugh. The justifications Ian provides are quite shallow, and he gives Ponting credit for keeping a team competitive after losing many star players. Surely he has to have Border in front of Ponting since Border took the team from the depths of despair at the start of his captaincy to the brink of greatness under Taylor which was then was completely and unarguably capitalised under Waugh. To me, it appears Chappelli likes who he likes, his opinions are mostly personal and personality based, and he creates an argument to supports his feelings. Rarely are they balanced.

It is completely understandable that Steve feels aggrieved by the ongoing criticism and negativity he receives from Ian. Chappelli uses the media to make his opinions known where Steve does not, however Steve need not say anything further on the matter because it is Steve's personal and captaincy record which will stand the test of time for true greatness.